Moores School's AURA Ensemble Presents a Different Kind of Chamber Music

Left to right: Sonya Matoussova, cello; Shelby Thompson, viola; Ingrid Hunter, violin; Roberto Trillo, violin
Left to right: Sonya Matoussova, cello; Shelby Thompson, viola; Ingrid Hunter, violin; Roberto Trillo, violin
Courtesy of Rob Smith

Asked to expand on the theme for the upcoming AURA concert, entitled Multifaceted, University of Houston music composition professor Rob Smith was at a loss to describe it in words other than what it is -- a three-dimensional shape with flat surfaces.

"Every single work on the program looks at something from a variety of different angles. That's the deal behind something that's multifaceted, it's got a bunch of different ways you can view it," said Smith, director of the ensemble.

AURA is UH's chamber music ensemble for new music, generally meaning music that has been composed since the 1990s.

Members of the group will perform Richard Reed Perry's 2012 composition "Quartet for Heart and Breath." Yes, the composer is in popular Canadian band Arcade Fire, but this string quartet definitely isn't pop music. In it, the performers use stethoscopes to listen to the beating of their hearts and respiration, and they use those tempos to get the beat for their parts.

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"We're playing music, but we're looking at it from a completely different standpoint. We're taking the tempo and pulse not from something that the composer has generated but from the performers themselves," Smith said.

Perry recently released an entire album of works timed by the performers' heart and breath, but Smith thinks that this one is especially captivating and engaging throughout.

"It's technically challenging because if you play too loudly, it's hard to hear your heart and breath as you play. It's a quiet work with lots of pizzicato and quiet bowing," Smith said.

"You think it would be kind of chaotic with all the different tempos, but that's not the case."

There's a lot of music associated with UH on this program, including works by former Director of the Moores School of Music David Ashley White, faculty percussionist Blake Wilkins and composition and music education alumnus Adam Beard.

When Beard won AURA's composition contest, he was commissioned to write a piece for the organization. His resulting piece for flute and piano is called Tessellations.

"He wrote a really terrific piece that's got all these incredibly cool metric modulations. He's taken a couple of rhythms and stuck to those but put them through a lot of tempos and meters. Everything single time that you have these same rhythms, they feel completely different based on all these metric modulations," Smith said.

A metric modulation is a change in the time signature of a piece--for example, a shift from four beats per measure to three.

Wilkins' piece, "Hinge," was completed in 2014 and will also be premiered on this concert. It was commissioned and written for the entire AURA ensemble, which consists of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and other percussion.

"He takes the interval of a minor third and uses that as a hinge, so everything is based around that. What's really interesting is that almost all the time this minor third is going on in some voice," Smith said.

"It's an exploration of what the ensemble can do with this hinge holding everything together. It's like looking at all the different ways you can interpret this minor third. You're following this interval because it's usually obvious, but it doesn't get boring because everything around it is constantly changing."

Two pieces on the program use medieval themes--"L'isola di S. Michele" for soprano saxophone and piano by White and Choral for harp and cello by French composer Philippe Hersant. The former was premiered in 1990, while the latter is a theme and variations set that was premiered in 2004.

Also on the concert is Michael Daugherty's "Diamond in the Rough" for violin, viola and percussion, which was premiered in 2006 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's death. Houston's own Da Camera commissioned the work.

"It's very witty. It's got a bit of a pop element, lots of energy, catchy figures and interesting textures," Smith said.

"One of the things I admire about his music is that he usually has a really good sense of timing and pacing, and this is definitely one of those pieces."

Another featured work is Carlos Salzedo's "Sonata for Harp and Piano," which was premiered in 1922. Smith says that he began putting more harp music on the program because faculty harpist Paula Page has been attracting floods of harp students to the school, and these students are hungry for performance opportunities.

"The year 1922 isn't exactly what we try to do with the ensemble, but the harpist was trying to sell me on the piece. I didn't know it before, but it was so inventive and interesting that I thought the audience should hear it," Smith said.

With so much chamber music in the world that sounds quite similar, why not take a break from all the baroque trio sonatas and experience a new facet of chamber music?

AURA presents Multifaceted at 7:30 p.m. on April 20 at the Moores Opera House, 120 School of Music Building. Visit the AURA website or call 713-743- 3313 for tickets and information. $12 general admission, $7 students.

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